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They were walking down the street in the city when she stopped, dead still in the midst of the steady flow of pedestrians. “Do you see it?” she said. “The lights, the stores, all of these appearances people put on.” She turned and looked straight into his eyes, her gaze vacant and penetrating at the same time. “It means nothing,” she said. “Do you know that?”
What he was in relation to her, he didn’t know. Whether she cared for him or simply allowed him to follow her, he was unsure. If there was a method to her madness, he couldn’t say. But he stayed by her side because she had a clear view of the world, and because she allowed him to walk by her side.
The crowd surged around her, muttering angrily. She turned her head slowly to view her surroundings, and with that a wide smile spread over her face. “What’s funny,” she said, “is that they all think that their contribution, what they’re getting to, whatever it is, is important.”
They had been moving from city to city at her whim, sometimes staying for months and sometimes only for hours. It was their first day in the latest city, and she wanted to explore, and so they walked. They had no destination, only walking where impulse took them.
“Giving up your goals,” she said as they walked, “is step one towards freedom. Nothing seems too far off when you’re aiming for nowhere.”
He asked her whether she thought goal achievement had any correlation to happiness.
“I suppose you could call my existence now happiness,” she said. “I get by, don’t I?”
They continued to walk in silence until they came to the sign for a zoo. She grabbed his hand with a kind of childish excitement and suggested that they go inside, he delighted at the smile that lit her face.
Inside, they walked from exhibit to exhibit. She laughed at the monkeys, shivered at the snakes and swooned over the baby tigers. She carried on a steady stream of conversation and kept a fast pace, often leaving him lagging behind.
He was surprised to find her motionless in front of a swan pond. Her eyes followed their graceful paths, unfocused from the rest of the world. Her pale, thin fingers closed on the bars that encircled the exhibit, and as she watched the birds swim, a tear slid down her cheek.
He moved forward and placed a hand on her shoulder. She looked at him, surprise on her face. “Oh, I didn’t know you were there,” she said, and this lack of acknowledgement struck him and left him with a feeling of emptiness.
Her eyes returned to the swans. “They have such pride,” she said, “such dignity. Here they are, day after day, being stared at, photographed, having things thrown at them. And they retain that elegance. What lives they lead, what they have to put up with, and they still have that innate grace about them.” She sniffed and wiped away a tear. “Such a façade of beauty,” she said, “just to keep up appearances. What does that tell you about the world?”
She stood outside the bars for quite a while longer, her unbreakable gaze focused on the swans as they swam around and around their circular pond, using all their effort and energy to get back to exactly the same spot.
In the hotel room that they rented that night, he watched television and she watched him, studying his face. He finally asked her what she was thinking about.
“Are you happy?” she asked him. He answered ambiguously, giving the general connotation of yes.
She looked at him, a mixture of sadness, resignation and relief in her lightless eyes. “That’s good,” she said. “That’s what’s important.”
She leaned into his embrace. Her body completely still and making no sound, a steady stream of tears soaked his shirtfront. Hearing his breathing, feeling his heartbeat and never feeling more alone, she fell asleep in his arms.
Later that night, after they had both fallen asleep, he felt her rising from the bed, her movements unnaturally quiet, trying hard not to wake him. And so he played along, not moving, keeping his breathing deep and even. She slipped towards the doorway, the door swinging shut behind her with the softest click.
He sat up, felt the warm space where she had lain moments before, thought for a moment. And then with his quiet movements mimicking hers, he got to his feet and followed her silently down the patterned carpet of the hall.
She never looked back, only placed one foot in front of the other, her decisiveness of destination evident. She seemed unaware of her surroundings as she walked, her bare feet gliding over the city grime with irrefutable grace. And so she swept through the dark and the cold, her pace steady until she came to a bridge.
She placed her pale hands on the rail, her narrow fingers running up and down it, clasping the bars as she had those closing in the swan pond. Her eyes were unfocused as she studied the length of the river receding into the distance. In an undertone, almost as if speaking to herself, she said, “As far as it goes, even with all that distance it has nothing to offer you.”
He was frozen in his spot, several yards back from her, clearly visible if she would only recognize him. But for the lack of this, he was unable to make a sound as she began to move.
Her movements fluid, almost as if in a dream, her pale thin fingers pushed her body up, climbing the rail. Her arms raised over her head, the hands clasped, she dived into the water with the unmistakable beauty and grace of a swan, barely making a sound as she sank beneath the surface.
At the sound of that low ripple, his mind became attached once more to his body, and he hurried to the edge, his hands desperately clutching the rail, still unable to cry out. Always trusting in her wisdom, he began to raise his arms in preparation to follow her.
But as he bent his knees, poised to jump, he considered the difference between her behavior that night and that of prior occasions. In the past, she had beckoned him to come with her, encouraged him to join in her actions. She had not wanted him to accompany her to the bridge. He had followed out of sheer habit.
It occurred to him that he had been following her for too long, that he had forgotten to think for himself. He had not the elegance of the swans. He had only what he could make of himself on his own volition. With the feeling of having lost one thing but having gained another, he turned away from the railing and walked back towards the lights of the city.